Monday, July 2, 2012

Check Your Facts, Ma’am! Guest Post by Jodie Renner


by Jodie Renner, freelance editor @JodieRennerEd

You’re busy creating your story world with your right brain, rolling along with the great plot and developing your characters while your muse is buzzing. Great! But later, when you’ve got that first draft done, it’s important to switch to your left brain and go back and check for logistics, time sequencing, and continuity of character and setting details—or get someone else to do it for you.

And while you’re at it, verify your facts, to avoid annoying or even alienating your readers – and eroding your credibility. “But,” you say, “I’m writing fiction, so who cares about facts?” You should, because you want to create a credible world for your readers to be drawn into, and if an erroneous fact jars them out of it, they’re going to be disappointed and annoyed. Think about watching a movie about Ancient Rome and suddenly you notice a watch on one of the gladiators! The illusion of being caught up in their world is shattered.

If you’re writing a western, make sure the gun makes and models they use were invented by that period. And in a contemporary novel, don’t have a character in the 70s researching a topic on her home computer or emailing friends! I recently read a novel in which the (missing and assumed dead) mother of the protagonist had sent emails 20-25 years earlier! I think I personally started emailing around 1996 or ’97. How about you? Similarly, don’t have your everyday characters carrying around cell phones before the mid- to late-‘90s. Even today, there are large parts of North America with no cell phone service, so if your story is set in a remote area, be sure to check before having your characters use their mobile phones there.

In a historical fiction I edited a few years ago, a murderer was running from the police in England, around 1845. He headed to the port and spotted a lone man with a ticket for a passage across to New York. He lured him into a secluded area, stabbed him, and stole his ticket for the ship, which he boarded almost immediately. Arriving in America three or four weeks later, he was greeted by his uncle, whom he’d arranged to meet him at the pier. I immediately queried the author as to how the fugitive, who’d boarded the ship at the last minute, could have arranged for his uncle in America to be at the harbor to meet him? By telephone? The author admitted he hadn’t thought of that, and was grateful that I’d pointed it out.

Also, be aware of whether expressions were in use in the time frame or geographical region of your story. If you use a modern expression in a historical fiction, it jolts the reader out of that time period, and they’ll probably feel you did a shoddy job of recreating that world for them. For example, in a historical fiction I was editing that took place about 150 years ago, the term “upscale” was used. This struck me as out of place for that time, so I looked it up. Merriam-Webster lists “upscale” as first being used in 1966, so to even use it in narration in a historical fiction takes the reader out of that world. Same with the even more recent expression, “high-end” (coined around1977). For historical fiction, better to use “upper-class” or “elegant” or “sophisticated” or “affluent” or “wealthy.” A few other fairly recent expressions that would date a book set in the ‘50s to ‘80s would be “metrosexual” (Merriam-Webster says it was coined in 1994), “24/7” or the more recent “My bad.” Can you think of any words, terms or expressions that have jumped out at you as anachronistic in a book or movie set in the past, even 20 or 30 years ago?

And as a freelance editor, I constantly notice little errors like an amber necklace suddenly being called a sapphire necklace later in the evening; someone picking a daffodil from the garden in October, a wound in the forearm moving inexplicably to the hand; a character’s vehicle color, make or model changing; problems with dates and time sequencing; sudden changes in a character’s name, age, or appearance; inconsistencies with the season, climate or geography; and so on. I was editing a murder mystery several years ago where the victim had been shot in the head while he sat in his car (a single gunshot). Several chapters later, the autopsy was investigating his only wound—in his chest! And another where an apple tree in blossom became, the next morning, a tree bearing ripe apples! If errors like these aren’t picked up before your story is published, you can be sure that a number of readers will notice them and may lose confidence in you as a writer—and put down your story. Or worse, write a bad review of it on Amazon.

So if in doubt about facts in your story, take the time to look them up, or run your story past trusted readers before publication. Better yet, employ the services of a freelance editor, who will be on the lookout for incorrect information, discrepancies, and logic problems, and may query you with a comment like “Was this invented back then?” or “Did she just buy a new car? The one she had yesterday was a blue Toyota. Now she’s driving a Ford,” or “Who’s Ralph?” (That character whose name you changed.) The last thing you want is for your readers to say, “Oh, come on! This doesn’t make sense!” then toss the book aside.

How about you? As a reader, have you ever been jolted out of a story by something that didn’t make sense? As a writer or editor, have you noticed incongruities that needed to be fixed? Do you have any interesting or funny or absurd examples to share?

P1070629_CloseupJodie Renner is a freelance editor, specializing in suspense/thrillers, romantic suspense, mysteries and other crime fiction, as well as mainstream, YA, and historical fiction. For more information on Jodie’s editorial services, please visit her website at

Thanks for coming by today, Jodie! Jodie will be doing a series of monthly guest posts for me to look at writing from an editor's point of view. I'm looking forward to them. :)

Image: Flickr: kylemacdonald/